New York Times
By Mary Jo Patterson
AT 7:11 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, a box truck making its sixth delivery of the day turned onto a quiet residential street in South Orange, N.J.
The truck, which bore no name but was well known to the neighbors because it appeared every Sunday from June through November, backed into the driveway of a large white house. Two men wordlessly jumped out of the cab and unloaded 20 identical bushel boxes, including one that was mine. Each contained garlic, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, chard, cilantro, potatoes, shallots, green beans and grape tomatoes. The men also left behind 20 bunches of flowers and 20 smaller boxes of tomatoes.
After 9 a.m., people started arriving to fetch their boxes. All were shareholders in Honey Brook Organic Farm in Hopewell Township, where the produce was grown. Rather than sift through bins at a supermarket, where all vegetables are available all the time, they had chosen to eat locally and seasonally by joining a movement known as community-supported agriculture.
These suburbanites are part of a small but growing band of eaters who know exactly where, and how, their vegetables are grown. They also eat no food before its time. Strawberries are eaten in June; arugula is enjoyed in the fall.
Food used to be something I bought at a store. After reading about the operation at Honey Brook in 2006, it turned into much more.
‘Community-supported agriculture’ is a clumsy term for a business model pioneered in 1986 on two small farms in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Today, it is exploding, in the suburbs of New York and elsewhere. Under the arrangement, a farmer forges a personal relationship with consumers by selling them shares of his crops in advance of the growing season.
At Honey Brook, one of the largest C.S.A.’s in the country, farm members don’t have to work in the fields. Nor do they even have to go there. Most members pick up their weekly shares at the farm, seven miles west of Princeton, but the farm also delivers boxed shares three times a week in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Figuring that a weekly bushel box of vegetables would be too much for my small household, I found a friend willing to split the price of a box share, then $577. On a cold evening in January 2007, I wrote the check, and voila ! Strawberries and lettuce appeared five months later. Then came bok choy, collards, chard, beets, potatoes, spinach and other crops.
My friend and I were happy to support agriculture in an urbanized state. I certainly enjoyed eating local food. But I did not feel a connection to the farm. I did not take advantage of the ‘pick your own’ privileges, or meet the farmer. And I did not partake of the farm’s social events, like the local-fare potluck dinner, or the end-of-season invitation to pick the fields clean.
No, this was a long-distance relationship, and to be honest, it felt a little furtive. Early Sunday mornings I drove to South Orange, parked, walked up the driveway and entered an open garage. The boxes were stacked next to a clipboard, where I checked off my name. I did not know who owned the house, and never saw anyone.
This year I accepted an assignment to research the story behind my box, and everything changed.
I met the farmer, Jim Kinsel, 50; his wife, Sherry Dudas, 44; and their dog, Jack. I was introduced to their staff, including members of the Camacho family, who provide most of the backbreaking farm labor. The oldest grew up on a ranch in Mexico, but they are now based in Texas. During New Jersey’s growing season, they live apart from their families, in a rented house in Trenton.
Over a week’s time, I watched farm members ‘ many of them families with children’ collect their weekly shares and go to the pick-your-own fields for more. I picked jade beans, raspberries, blackberries and purple basil myself.
I helped with the coming Sunday’s delivery, cutting flowers on Saturday with a farm intern, Yau Li, a recent Rutgers graduate from Jamaica, Queens.
On Sunday, I joined the farm’s driver, Mike Monk, as he hauled 226 boxed shares, including mine, to North Jersey. At 3:30 a.m., Mr. Monk, a truck driver from Ewing Township for whom this is a second job, put the truck in gear and inched off the dirt road. ‘Whoa, she’s heavy,’ he said. ‘Can feel the load over my rear wheels.’
Over the next five and a half hours, assisted by Juan Camacho, he unloaded the cargo in nine towns.
In the process, I developed an affinity for the farm. I also discovered who lived in the house in South Orange.
Not all C.S.A.’s function alike. Some require members to work; others don’t. Some involve members in decision-making; others view them as subscribers. But all are bound by the idea that members share the risks inherent in farming, as well as the bounty.
While family farms continue to decline across the country, the number of C.S.A.’s has jumped from 50 in 1990 to more than 2,000, according to www.localharvest.org in Santa Cruz, Calif., an Internet guide to organic and local food. C.S.A.’s have become so popular that many in Connecticut and New Jersey have waiting lists.
Most are small, and many of the growers are tenants. Mr. Kinsel leases Honey Brook from the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, an environmental group that manages a large nature reserve. In 2008, the farm sold out, with 2,313 shares, 525 of them delivered. Members paid $600 for delivery of a box share, $604 for a family-size farm pickup, and $358 for an individual share, also picked up at the farm. Ms. Dudas described the price as ‘a good value,’ and said that in 2006 (the most recent calculation) members paying $528 for a family share received the equivalent of produce that would have cost $1,861 at a nearby Whole Foods Market.
Before getting hooked on agriculture, Mr. Kinsel started out after college in the actuarial department of Prudential, the insurance company, in Newark. Ms. Dudas is a former state employee who worked on farmland preservation issues. They live on the farm and employ a permanent staff of 11. The farm started small, in 1991, with Mr. Kinsel farming 3.5 acres for 50 local families. After 9/11, membership boomed. Ms. Dudas worked to broaden the farm’s appeal.
‘We starting looking at our mission. I wanted to address criticism that organic only addressed the upper middle class,’ she said. She put Trenton on the farm’s delivery route, and advertised in publications catering to minorities.
Honey Brook turned its first profit around 2001. Today, it provides a good living.
‘Wholesaling for a farm this size is no longer viable, even for an organic farm, but a C.S.A. can work,’ Mr. Kinsel said. ‘We have a customer base who’s affluent and well educated, and New Jersey has shown a commitment to farmland preservation.’
By 2007, the couple had saved enough money to buy their own farm, in Chesterfield.
My Sunday box began to take shape on Wednesday, when Mr. Kinsel drew up a preliminary plan with David Camacho, his field manager since 1993.
Mr. Camacho has a finely honed ability to anticipate when a vegetable or fruit will ripen, and seems to know exactly when to harvest. Unlike produce grown far away and delivered to supermarkets, many of the farm’s crops remain in the ground until a day or two before members get them.
The two men debated what to include outside the box, as extras. At least once a season, the farm likes to deliver flowers. Would the flowers, now blooming, hold another week? What about the watermelons?
The final decision on the boxes’ contents came at noon on Thursday, when the field boss made his final assessment.
From her office in the farmhouse, Susan Barosko, the office manager, talked by walkie-talkie to Mr. Camacho. Then, in an e-mail message, she advised members what they were likely to get. As usual, she included a recipe (‘Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots’).
Most of the crops were harvested on Saturday, beginning at 6:30 a.m. Field workers harvested and washed them; two teenagers, including Mr. Kinsel’s niece, sorted and packed them. A different crew arranged flowers in bunches, a process that took hours.
The boxes, meanwhile, were set up in a refrigerated trailer. After being filled, they were transferred to the delivery truck and kept chilled overnight. Quitting time was around 7 p.m.
Sunday’s ride started in darkness. By the time we hit Morristown, our fourth stop, it was light. In Summit, we spied our first farm member, returning home from walking her dog.
In South Orange, Sam Stoloff, a literary agent in Manhattan with three young children, was not home when we arrived with the boxes. But I knew his story.
‘When we moved out to New Jersey six years ago, my wife and I had already started talking about eating locally and eating organic, so I just started searching on the Web, ‘he said when I phoned him a few days earlier. I saw the farm delivered to a town nearby and contacted them. They said they would deliver here, if I could organize 20 members.’
He did. And they came.